This is about another experience sailing on the USS Saint Francis River (LFR-525), but before I tell that story, I need to tell you this one. I can't help but notice that I need a haircut and I'm a little peeved about that. Three months haven't passed yet and almost everyone who knows me know that I get a haircut once a quarter. That's because I'm a cheapskate. At $20 a pop, including a $2 tip, I refuse to spend more than $80 a year on haircuts. Call me eccentric if you want. So be it. I'm old enough, and probably deserve, to be that way.
So, when I do get a haircut, I like it short, just shy of white sidewalls. By the time I need one again, I'm pretty shaggy but it's still manageable. But, my last haircut was a “medium,” sold to me by persuasive “Little” Al at Castro Valley's Village Barber Shop. Well, it's probably my fault for two reasons. The first is that I specifically waited for Little Al's chair to empty because I noticed that Big Al was politically agitated, even though Big Al remembers how I like my hair and he gives a better haircut. A person shouldn't want Big Al cutting his hair when he's agitated. He was going on about Senator Boxer acting more like a Republican than a Democrat and that's not a time to have him cutting your hair. The last time he cut my hair while agitated, I walked out with REALLY SHORT hair. So, I chose Little Al.
The second reason is that explaining how one wants their hair cut is really difficult, so I usually just submit. In this visit, Little Al suggested a “medium,” whatever that is. It turns out that Al felt he needed to use “ thinning shears,” the most useless tool in a barber shop in my humble opinion, to get my hair to a medium state. I ask you, don't you think that if the hair on the side of your head is relatively short, shouldn't the hair on the top of your head be cut proportional to the length on the sides? I think so. I'm not a “top notch” kind of guy, walking around with thin hair on top standing up in the wind while the sides are laying nicely flat.
Al's first pass cut a lot of hair off my sides, as I expected and wanted, but he only snipped the ends of my hair on top. That left three inches on top, but only a half inch or less on the side, way out of proportion. I said, “Al. You need to take more off of the top.”
“We'll get it,” he said, and I kept quiet. Then out came the thinning shears. Crap. Thinning shears, in case someone doesn't know, are scissors that have one full, sharp blade and teeth on the other blade. The teeth cut half of the hair in a snip, leaving the remaining hair long. As the name implies, they thin the hair... which of course makes it wave in the slightest breeze or even when walking. I never wanted to be that guy who combs four strands of hair across the top of his head to cover a bald spot and who is constantly patting it down in the slightest breeze. If that's what life brings, then I'll just be bald. But, rather than tell Al how to do his job, I waited until I got home to shorten the top myself.
That brings me to the USS Saint Francis River and the question: How did I learn how to cut hair? I learned on that ship. If you've read my last blog, The Kraken and Other Leviathans, you know it was the most dangerous ship I was on. It was an accident waiting to happen, and it did more than once. I became the Ship's Barber for a little over four months on the River when our regular barber, Chicken Man, cut off his thumb in a rocket launcher loader. That ended his barbering, and any other enterprise with that hand. An opposing thumb is critical.
Chicken Man got his nickname because of the size of his nose, not because he was chicken. His nose was huge. From what I could tell, he wore it proudly. But, being a rocket loader, a “front man,” wasn't for the faint of heart. Not everyone qualified for the job. It took four extremely quick, coordinated men to keep a single rocket launcher firing; two to push fully armed rockets into the barrels and two others to take the empty casings out, and all of that happened in less than three seconds in steady firing. Harassment fire was slower, but when Army or Marines were in a hot spot with the Vietcong, we were in close to shore and shooting all we had to help them. We could empty our entire ship load of 5,000 rockets in fifteen minutes, if necessary, firing all ten launchers as fast as we could. When that happened, things got hectic. My loader and I were the only two sailors on the main deck manning the 40mm canon. We just ducked and pulled our shirts over our eyes and mouth, trying to breath in the thick rocket smoke and to not get hit by a side-winder, a bad rocket or misfire. No one was surprised about Chicken Man's accident. It was inevitable.
I hated to see Chicken Man leave. As senior Supply Petty Officer, I knew how hard his job was, especially with our S. O. B. XO the way he was. Doing anything for him was brutal. Nothing pleased him and cutting his hair was the worst. You may think that my mention in that past blog about fifty percent of the crew refusing to return to ship was a casual incident, but that was a serious breach of conduct, and our XO was more of a cause of that than anything else. The crew hated him. That incident was noted in the ship's log, and the logs are sent (some by teletype, as this one was) to the Commander, Pacific Fleet, the Pacific top dog, and HE demanded an investigation. On our next stop in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, a week or so later, a Rear Admiral Chaplain, hastily flown in from San Diego, commenced that investigation. As it was payday too, I, as senior Supply PO, sat beside the XO, acting as Disbursing Officer, at a mess deck table and counted the money as he gave each sailor their pay. I hated this chore; having to sit next to the XO. As usual, he withheld pay at his discretion and slightest whim, depending on whether “he liked” the man or not, a decision he had no right nor authority to make. Not even the highest Admiral had that authority. But this time the Rear Admiral was watching. I nearly burst out laughing when the Admiral, with all the investigative authority of the Commander, Pacific Fleet, leaned over into the XO's face, and said, “You're an ass hole. Pay these men what the Navy owes them or I'll court marshal your ass.” Whoa! In front of everyone! It was glorious. Not a soul on the mess deck breathed.
Unfortunately, the XO was not ordered off the ship as everyone expected. He left the ship on our return to our home port, Yokosuka, Japan, more than four months later. So, I soon got the word that I was the new Ship's Barber, ordered by the XO of course. From that point on until the ship returned to Yokosuka, I cut hair on the fantail every Saturday and Sunday. We had fun cutting hair. We made it a social event, talking and laughing at unintended hair “styles.” At first, most of the crew wanted a buzz using clippers. It was easy and clean cut and they were afraid of any other cut they might end up with. But, the XO noticed how easy that was and he ordered no more buzzes, I believed out of spite. So, I began using a comb and scissors and I used the clippers only for trimming edges. By the time we returned to Yokosuka, I was the only crew member with a buzz because none of the crew could cut my hair any other way. I had also given about 1,000 haircuts and the later ones were pretty good. Cutting hair was not that difficult, except the XO's hair.
The XO's hair was pretty long by the time he sat down for a hair cut. He ordered me to the Ship's Barber Shop to do it, out of sight (and laughter) of the crew, and usually after a tiring day on the gun-line, not on a relaxing Saturday or Sunday. The shop was just big enough for a barber's chair, upright, and one person – me. As usual, the XO was determined to make things difficult and he insisted on leaning the chair back, which took up more space, made it difficult to move or bend over his hair and usually ended up giving me a back pain. I gave him about eight haircuts over the four month period. He insisted that I use Thinning Shears, which, I learned, did nothing more than make him look stupid. It didn't make his hair shorter, it only made it thinner. There is always a breeze at sea, and in spite of his hat, he couldn't keep his hair under control. He looked like an idiot and everyone snickered behind his back. I got more facetious “good job” comments from the crew for his haircut than any other joke I pulled on that ship. On the occasion of the last haircut I gave him, I accidentally (on purpose) cut a gouge through his hair on the back of his head and then pleaded, “I'm so, so sorry, XO. I slipped.” He wrote me up for non-judicial punishment and tried to reduce me by one rank, but the Skipper wouldn't sign the reduction in rank order nor the hearing findings. The Skipper winked at me as he told me to behave myself.
Three days later we arrived in Yokosuka and our new XO reported aboard. As our old one walked down the gangway for the last time, a chief yelled out, “Hey XO. You need a haircut.” Everyone on deck burst out laughing. He just turned and scowled.